With just four days until elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a last-minute pitch for votes on Friday with a promise that not a single settlement will be removed if he is re-elected.
With opinion polls showing growing support for the hardline pro-settler Jewish Home party of Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu talked up his own pro-settlement credentials in two newspaper interviews.
Asked by the Maariv daily if he could guarantee that, if re-elected, he would not demolish any Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, Netanyahu said: “Yes, correct. The days of bulldozers uprooting Jews are behind us, not ahead of us.”
“We haven’t evicted one settlement. We have strengthened the settlement enterprise,” he said in what was widely seen as remarks aimed at stemming the flow of votes to Bennett, whose party opposes a Palestinian state and champions accelerated settlement construction.
Asked if he still supported the concept of a Palestinian state, which he endorsed for the first time in June 2009, Netanyahu was non-committal.
“Nobody wants a bi-national state,” he said.
“I am realistic. The Palestinians are posing entry conditions for commencing negotiations that we cannot accept.
“Their entry conditions are unacceptable to me, and my conditions for concluding the negotiations are unacceptable to them,” he said.
Peace talks have been frozen for more than two years, and the Palestinians say they will not re-enter negotiations while Israel continues building on land they want for a future state.
But Netanyahu, who ordered a partial 10-month moratorium on new West Bank construction, ruled out any future freeze.
“The freezing of settlements has run its course. We proved that the Palestinians are not interested and the settlement issue is largely a deception,” he said. “The settlements are a result of the conflict, and not its cause.”
Talks with the Palestinians collapsed in late September 2010 after the moratorium expired and Netanyahu refused to renew it.
Figures published in the last opinion polls before Tuesday’s vote show the joint electoral list of Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud and the hardline nationalist Yisrael Beitenu losing support to between 32 and 35 seats in the 120-member parliament, down from 42 in the outgoing Knesset.
At the same time, Jewish Home is undergoing a major revival under its charismatic new leader Naftali Bennett, a high-tech entrepreneur who makes no secret of his desire to annex more than 60 percent of West Bank land to Israel.
It won three seats in 2009, but is consistently seen as winning between 12 and 15 seats in the new parliament, which could make it the third largest party.
Even further to the right is Otzma LeYisrael, a new extremist anti-Arab party popular among hardline settlers, which is seen taking up to three seats.
If the polls prove correct, the far-right and extremist bloc could end up with up to 18 seats, easily doubling the seven they took in 2009.
Netanyahu’s 11th-hour remarks “veered to the right on the question of settlementsv to try to woo Likud supporters tempted to vote for Jewish Home,” said Israeli public radio pundit Hanan Crystal.
“It is clear that in putting the question of settlements at the centre he is looking to bring rightwing voters back into the fold,” he said, telling AFP the last-ditch appeal was “probably too late to influence the results.”
Friday’s batch of opinion polls — the last which can be legally published before Tuesday’s vote — showed Labour coming second with 16-17 seats, slightly above the top estimates for Jewish Home.
The new centrist Yesh Atid faction is seen taking 11-13 seats, and the ultra-Orthodox Shas is expected to win 10-12.
The centrist HaTnuah party of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni is expected to take seven or eight, closely followed by the leftwing Meretz, which is set to double its showing with five or six.
Kadima, whose fortunes have crashed since it won 28 seats in 2009, is seen winning just two, while the Arab bloc comprising the three main Arab-Israeli parties is expected to remain steady, taking 11-12.
Two surveys put the number of undecided voters at around 15 percent, a potential 17-18 seats, the Haaretz newspaper said.